Kathleen Battle was born in 1948, the youngest of seven African-American kids in a lower middle-income Portsmouth, Ohio household. From that inauspicious beginning, she rose to become one of the greatest lyric sopranos of our age. In terms of the purity, range and agility of her voice, I think Battle has been the greatest in the world (that I've heard) over the last several decades. She last appeared in Indy in 1998 at ISO conductor laureate Raymond Leppard's first Classical Christmas program. I was enthralled.
This time Battle gave a vocal recital with Joel A. Martin as piano accompanist. The first half began with Baroque composer Henry Purcell and ended with Rachmaninoff. In between Martin gave us a solo performance of Mendelssohn's E Minor Scherzo, Op. 16 No. 2. He was to prove more at home in the ragtime, pops, jazz and spiritual idioms dominating the second half.
Battle opened with songs from two Purcell sets of incidental music: Oedipus (1692) and The Mock Marriage (1695). Then came four Schubert songs, including "Die Forelle" (The Trout) and "Gretchen am Spinnrade," Schubert's first published art-song. Battle had two false starts -- in which she didn't actually sing -- with "Gretchen," holding Martin in abeyance while "preparing herself." She finished the classical half with offerings by Mendelssohn, Liszt and Rachmaninoff's "Spring Waters."
The post-intermission recital opened with "A Real Slow Drag" by Scott Joplin and continued with "Shine Like a Morning Star" by William C. Handy -- the "father" of the blues (1873-1958). Then two Gershwin songs -- one the famous "I Loves You Porgy" from his opera Porgy and Bess. Next came a number we always associate with Julie Andrews, "My Favorite Things" from Rodgers' The Sound of Music.
Delving into jazz, Battle then sang Duke Ellington's "I Got it Bad (and that ain't good)" and "Heaven" from Sacred Concert No. 2. She ended her program with the traditional spirituals "Wade in the Water" and "Witness," the latter arranged by Hale Smith.
Singing without amplification, Battle's vocalism throughout the program continues to show the wide range it's always had. When she hit those fortissimos at the ends of and during the songs in the program's latter half, her voice belted out the purest tones I can imagine hearing; her vocal control over pitch and vibrato is nothing less than astonishing. In comparing her "I Loves You Porgy" with a recording of it when in her prime, the only difference was that her control may have been a bit more sustained then. Still, I can't imagine anyone else doing it now as well as she does it -- now.
Martin deserves plaudits for his extended, presumably improvised "cadenza" work during the second-half offerings while Battle took a breath. Though I've said it before-- this was a recital to remember. April 27; Carmel Palladium in the Center for the Performing Arts